An act of cultural homicide in Dublin’s south docklands

Hugh Linehan: The City Arts Centre was once a reservoir for the quirky, the creative, the insurgent

The former City Arts Centre on Dublin’s City Quay is priced at €35 million by its current American owners. Photograph: Aidan Crawley

The former City Arts Centre on Dublin’s City Quay is priced at €35 million by its current American owners. Photograph: Aidan Crawley

 

A report this week will raise hackles among some of those whose memory of Dublin’s cultural landscape stretches back 20 years or more.

“Having lain dormant since its sale to a consortium of developers including Paddy Kelly and the McCormack family’s investment vehicle Alanis Capital in 2003, the former City Arts Centre on Dublin’s City Quay is being offered to the market once again,” the article stated, quoting sales agent John Swarbrigg: “This is the very last opportunity to acquire a much sought after waterfront site in Dublin’s docklands”.

Roll up, roll up, for the final ride on the carousel that has been the redevelopment of Dublin’s eastern quays. It seems appropriate that the last spin of these lucrative dice should fall on this particular slice of real estate. Because it’s bad enough that a highly prominent building, a few metres across the Liffey from the Custom House, has been allowed to squat, sad, empty and near-derelict, for two decades without apparently incurring any penalties for its successive owners, including Nama.

What’s worse is that, until the developers got their hands on it, the City Arts Centre was a reservoir for the quirky, the creative, the contingent and insurgent. You could go there to get a haircut, to practise with your band, to look at some paintings, to rehearse your next show, or just to have a sandwich and a chat.

The new owners took all that life and energy away and replaced it with a big nothing, a nihilistic blank space within a crumbling eyesore. It was an act of cultural homicide.

Decline

Nothing good has come of this. When the City Arts Centre sold the building for €4.2 million in 2003, it became for a while the richest arts organisation in Ireland. The sorry story of how it spiralled into decline, irrelevance and ultimately liquidation has been told elsewhere but it’s hard not to see it as the inevitable outcome of a Faustian pact.

And you only need to look east along the riverfront to know what will happen to the site, priced at €35 million by its current American owners. It will become the final addition to the soulless array of corporate offices that run all the way from the “Canary Dwarf” complex on George’s Quay down to Capital Dock, whose only distinguishing feature is its current status as the city’s tallest building.

Some will feel, understandably, that even that fate is better than the building’s current dereliction. But why should that be the only choice?

As it happens, Simon Kelly, son of the City Arts Centre’s 2003 purchaser Paddy Kelly, wrote an article this week making the case for his own planned redevelopment of a Drumcondra pub for apartments. Kelly jnr correctly criticised the widespread dereliction and under-use of land in the north inner city. But he also offered an insight into what the people who rebuilt Dublin’s docklands think they’ve achieved.

“The docklands have proven to be relatively easy-going in terms of the decision-making process for planners and developers, and I include myself and my father in that,” he wrote. “The area was filled with old warehouses many of which had fallen into dereliction, making them of little or no use to the economy, while the new offices and apartments that came to replace them represented the new technology-focused Ireland,”

Renewal

That’s one view, but it’s a partial one. Yes, the southeast quays of the Liffey were decaying, underused and ripe for renewal, but they also included pockets of ingenuity and creativity housed in buildings that had character and history, such as the original Windmill Lane studios, the nightclub at Columbia Mills and the City Arts Centre itself.

Each one of these buildings had a foundational role in, respectively, the genesis of the film and music industries, the emergence of a truly local club culture and the artistic development of many of this country’s visual and performing artists. All of that was erased and replaced by block after monotonous block of cookie-cutter glass-and-steel offices, with the occasional uninspiring apartment complex thrown in (the north docklands are even worse).

The sterile, dispiriting landscape created by “the new technology-focused Ireland” has no time, it seems, for the awkward and the innovative, or for anything opposed to its totalising, globalised blandness. Starbucks and Spar will have to do.

There’s been much coverage, rightly, of planning failures and erasure of cultural spaces in Dublin over the past several years. But we should recognise that this is a much longer story that has been happening for generations. It will come to an end only when our laws change, or maybe when, more than a century after Yeats, they have finally and entirely dried the marrow from the bone.

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